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John Ledger: Game united in grief after tragic loss of Leon Walker

IT HAS been a difficult week for rugby league as everyone comes to terms with the tragic death of Leon Walker, the 20-year-old Wakefield Trinity player who died in a reserve team game in Wales on Sunday afternoon.

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Leon's death has touched everybody involved in the sport, from all those people who knew him, the players who have in the last few days been thinking 'There but for the grace of God ...', the coaches, backroom staff, administrators, match officials, sponsors, media and spectators who between them constitute the wider rugby league family.

That was acknowledged by Leon's father, Steve who, in a moving television interview on Wednesday, paid tribute to the way the sport has come together to offer what help it can to Leon's family at this most difficult time.

Just what caused a young life to be ended so prematurely remains unclear but the death will inevitably have led some people to consider the implications of their own continued involvement – or the continued involvement of their little ones – in what is an immensely enjoyable but incredibly tough sport to play.

Leon was not the first person to die playing the game he loved and although rare, the sport has been no stranger to tragedy throughout its history. Prior to Sunday, the last player to die during a professional fixture was Chris Sanderson of Leeds, who was fatally injured in a tackle against Workington Town in 1977.

Eight years earlier, John Davies, a former Wales rugby union international, died of a suspected heart attack shortly after being stretchered from the field in a Heavy Woollen derby between Dewsbury and Batley. In 1955 Castleford prop Dennis Norton complained of chest pains during a match against New Zealand and died 12 days later.

In 1947 Hudson Irving, a forward who had spent 14 years playing for Halifax, collapsed and died of heart failure during a match. Two years later, another Halifax player, David Craven broke his back and later died.

The highest profile death in rugby league took place in 1906 when Harry Myers, the Keighley captain, was badly injured in a collision playing against Dewsbury. Myers, a half-back, died a month later and around 10,000 people lined the streets of Keighley to pay their respects as the funeral cortege passed through the town.

Match officials have also been no stranger to tragedy. In 1953 a match between Whitehaven and Barrow was abandoned after referee Laurie Thorpe collapsed and died on the field of play, a fate suffered by top Halifax referee Joe Jackson in 1979.

There have been other deaths since the sport was founded in 1895, but such tragedies remain thankfully rare despite the tens of millions of tackles that have been made in the intervening 114 years, a fact which has to be borne in mind by anyone questioning how health and safety and rugby league go together.

Around 20,000 people, from under-8s through to Super League, will take to a rugby league field this weekend to play the toughest team sport on the planet and though there will be bruises, bumps and tears – and not just among the under-8s – the abiding memory for all those involved come Monday morning will be pleasure.

Every match this weekend, amateur and professional, will be preceded by a minute's silence as a mark of respect for Leon Walker, a young man whose life revolved around rugby league but whose death came in a tragic accident which just happened to take place on a rugby league field.

As his grief-struck dad said this week: "The love of rugby league to Leon was the love of life. The determination, the dedication, everything was done for rugby league.

"Rugby league was Leon."

 
 
 

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